The Miami Heat are in their most critical stretch of the season, with only seven games remaining and the team only trailing the fifth seeded Milwaukee Bucks by one game. Miami has played their best ball of the season recently, winning 12 out of their last 15 games and are currently enjoying a six-game win streak.
The Heat's domination in the month of March has propelled them to seven games over .500 at 41-34 and has put them in an excellent position to finish with a better record than last year's 43-39 mark. Miami is seven games over .500 for the first time in three years and has the opportunity to finish 10 games over that mark if they go 5-2 over their final seven contests.
This is quite a feat considering just over a month ago, the team's season was in danger of spiraling out of control after five consecutive losses dipped them under the .500 mark and had them fall all the way down to the eighth seed.
Since then, Miami has been on fire and is finally looking like the improved team they were expected to be at the beginning of the season when a matured Michael Beasley and a healthy Jermaine O'Neal were supposed to make the team a lot more dangerous.
With the regular season all but over, we know what the 2009-2010 Miami Heat are made of and what they are capable of accomplishing. So, this starts the debate...which team is better- the 2008-2009 squad or the 2009-2010 squad?
2008-2009 Miami Heat:
This was the year after the horrendous 15-67 season that saw the Heat finish with the worst record in the NBA. It was the first full year of the post-Shaq era with the team all but ridding themselves of their 2006 championship squad, minus Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem.
The Heat had a youth movement, drafting Michael Beasley with the second overall pick and point guard Mario Chalmers in the second round. Miami became one of the youngest teams in the NBA, boasting two rookies in their starting lineup for the majority of the year. They were a team in rebuilding mode after dumping all their veterans and looking for pieces to surround their franchise player, Dwyane Wade.
They also showcased a rookie coach after Pat Riley stepped down as head coach and handed the reins to 38-year old Eric Spoelstra.
There were a lot of uncertainties and the team wasn't expected to accomplish much. However, they exceeded most people's expectations by having a 28-win improvement from the year before and achieved the Eastern Conference's fifth seed with a 43-39 record.
They ultimately lost in the first round of the playoffs in a seven-game series with the Atlanta Hawks, but it was considered a positive season by most.
The team saw a revitalized Wade tear up the league, winning the scoring title with 30.2 PPG, not to mention being named to his fifth All-Star appearance, a member of the All-NBA First Team, and being in serious MVP discussion.
Beasley had a decent rookie campaign, earning All-Rookie First Team honors, while Chalmers turned some heads by making the Rookie Second Team.
Despite some good moments, last year's Heat were young and inconsistent and endured a lot of growing pains on their way to their postseason appearance. They relied heavily on Wade's shoulders and many games were won at Flash's hands. Miami lacked a go to second scorer and all of the burden was placed on Wade.
Even after completing a midseason trade to acquire Jermaine O'Neal, the Heat remained inconsistent, going 15-15 with a hobbled O'Neal.
Overall, the 2008-2009 Miami Heat were a good team that had spurts of greatness, but they lacked consistent firepower. They were above average defensively, ranking in the top 10 in some defensive categories, but were very poor offensively. They averaged 98.3 points per game, which was in the bottom half of the NBA.
They were good enough to make the first round and that's about all.
2009-2010 Miami Heat:
This year's squad received a mouthful of criticism after failing to make a splash in the free agent pool and standing pat with their roster from the previous year. Miami was relying on internal improvements from second year players Beasley and Chalmers, as well as a healthy JO.
Their only off season activity included signing point guard Carlos Arroyo to a one-year deal and trading for Quentin Richardson. Although not viewed as significant deals at the time, both players currently hold down a starting position and are major contributors.
While expected to be more of a threat this year, Miami was extremely inconsistent during the season's first three months, looking worse than last year's squad at times, before they finally started to pull it together in late February.
The Heat couldn't find their identity and they suffered from major inconsistency issues that stemmed from a futile offense, an always changing rotation, and a lack of support from role players.
However, the Heat have found the winning formula recently by utilizing their strong defense. They finally realized that their defense is what fuels their victories and makes them a better team.
In addition, there is less of a reliance on Wade this year, as his statistics are down across the board, but Miami is still boasting a better record than last year. This shows that the supporting cast has stepped up and the Heat contain more weapons this year.
Beasley is more effective in his sophomore season after being inserted into the starting lineup, where his scoring and rebounding have gone up and he can certainly be relied on as a second scoring option.
In addition, O'Neal has improved greatly this season after working with Tim Grover in the off season to strength his knees. There is a hop back in JO's step and he still showcases flashes of his old self.
Quentin Richardson is a threat that Miami didn't have last year, and Q has been effective with his long range shooting and hustle by drawing charges on a nightly basis.
Udonis Haslem has responded very well to becoming a bench player after being a starter for most of his career. He brings energy and hustle off the bench and leads the second unit with clutch shooting and rebounding.
On nights that Beasley and O'Neal aren't performing as well, the Heat have also been able to turn to Arroyo and Dorell Wright for production. Arroyo has stepped up into a leadership role and runs the Miami offense very well, while being able to put some points on the board.
Wright has finally received his chance to play and he has done well, averaging almost seven points in 20 minutes per game. He has the ability to hit three-point shots, but contributes mainly with his defense. His length and athleticism help him guard some of the top perimeter players in the league and he does it successfully.
Overall, the 2009-2010 Miami Heat are the better team. They have a deeper roster, they have less of a reliance on Wade, they're far superior defensively, and they are on track to win more games than last year's squad.
The defense is the primary aspect that makes this year's team more successful than last year's. They rank second in the NBA in points allowed, limiting their opponents to an impressive 94.1 points per game. This is far better than last year's team that allowed 98.1 PPG.
They're also limiting their opponents to 43.8 percent shooting from the field, which is better than last year's 45.5 percent shooting. Lastly, this year's team averages more blocked shots than last year's.
The 2009-2010 Miami Heat are just a better team overall with the potential to be more successful than the 2008-2009 squad. They are more equipped and more dangerous and have the potential to pull an upset in the first round, depending on who they face. A better team with a motivated Wade can be a big threat in the postseason.
To make even more of a distinction from last year's team, the current roster is enjoying a six-game winning streak, which is their longest streak since 2007 and they are seven games over .500 for the first time since '07. The fact that last year's teams longest winning streak was five games, combined with the fact that this year's team could finish 10 games over .500 proves the distinction.
While this season's team did have an erratic schedule, they were still able to beat the Magic, Hawks, Lakers, Nuggets, and Jazz, proving their resiliency and ability to be victorious against elite teams. They failed to triumph the Cavaliers or Celtics this year, which is something last year's team did accomplish. However, this season's schedule was designed a lot more irregular than last year's, as the Heat endured lengthy mid and late season road trips and Western Conference swings.
In addition, they have a much better road record than last year's team. The Heat currently are 19-18 away from home, which is a vast improvement over last season's 15-26 finish. This year's squad is one of only 11 teams in the NBA to possess positive records on both their home floor and on the road.
So, the 2009-2010 Miami Heat are clearly the better team and they can further prove that if they advance past the first round. They will be heading into the postseason with momentum after a stellar March and they are a team capable of pulling off an upset behind a motivated Dwyane Wade, which can only spell trouble for whoever the Heat's opponent may be.